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Transport / Major funding boost as UK Government pledges nearly £27m for new Fair Isle ferry

Council leader Emma Macdonald said it is ‘no exaggeration to say that this funding from the UK Government has saved Fair Isle as an inhabited island’

The Fair Isle ferry Good Shepherd at Grutness. Photo: Ronnie Robertson

A LONG-AWAITED new ferry for Fair Isle looks set to become a reality after the UK Government awarded nearly £27 million towards the project.

The huge boost for Shetland Islands Council comes from the government’s Levelling Up Fund.

Local resident Eileen Thomson said she was “absolutely delighted” for the community.

“Anyone who has travelled on the Good Shepherd or has been affected by its lengthy refit periods will know how vital a new ferry is for our community,” she added.

Council leader Emma Macdonald said it is “no exaggeration to say that this funding from the UK Government has saved Fair Isle as an inhabited island” given that the existing Good Shepherd IV is reaching the end of her life.

Shetland Islands Council had applied for funding for both a new ferry and also harbour works at Fair Isle and Grutness in the South Mainland.

SIC political leader Emma Macdonald. Photo: Shetland News

The council failed in its first bid, but the UK Government has now confirmed it is pledging nearly £27 million.

The current vessel is nearly 40 years old, and does not meet current accessibility standards.

It takes around two and a half hours to take the boat to Fair Isle, the remote community located between Shetland and Orkney with a population of nearly 50. Flights also run from Tingwall Airport.

The new project would see a larger vessel introduced on the route with increased access and freight handling capability, and roll on/roll off (Ro-Ro) services. A passenger capacity of 12 is being proposed.

The preferred option with the harbours is to provide linkspans at both Fair Isle and Grutness.

There is a financial contribution from the council included in the business case – a figure previously suggested at up to £2.8 million – and that will need to be confirmed in the SIC’s forthcoming budget setting process.

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A 2019 survey with Fair Isle residents found that 85 per cent of folk did not think the current air and ferry connections to the mainland are sufficient for their family’s day-to-day needs, now and in future.

Macdonald said: “The Good Shepherd is less than five years from the end of her life.

“The impact of the loss of the ferry service from mainland Shetland to Fair Isle would be deeply profound, and without a new vessel the long-term sustainability of the island would be in doubt.

“It is no exaggeration to say that this funding from the UK Government has saved Fair Isle as an inhabited island. There would have been no other way for us to sustainably fund such a project.

“This is a truly great day for Fair Isle, and for Shetland, and we are grateful for the honest, open and productive dialogue we have had both with the Scotland Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities throughout the process.”

Shetland South councillor Allison ‘Flea’ Duncan, whose ward includes Fair Isle, described the announcement as “terrific” news.

“This really cheered me up after having been at the council every day of this week speaking about next year’s budget,” he said.

Fair Isle. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

“It’s brilliant news that Fair Isle is getting a new ferry and we all fought a hard fight for this.

“Thanks to the Westminster Government, this news will help keep the Fair Isle community going after the terrible fire [at the bird observatory] a few years ago.”

Depute convener Bryan Peterson said: “Replacing the Good Shepherd is brilliant news for the future of the island and its people.”

The announcement drew reaction Shetland’s political representatives, with Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael praising the “hard graft” on the funding pursuit from the council and local campaigners.

“If we want to see our island communities survive and thrive for the years and decades to come then lifeline transport infrastructure is essential,” he said.

“That is why the funding support for Fair Isle was so necessary and why its delivery today is so welcome.

“We need to see this sort of support for lifeline infrastructure – whether for ferries or fixed links for the isles – continue to develop in the years to come.”

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart added: “Island life has unique challenges and Fair isle has been particularly impacted in the last few years with the loss of the bird observatory and Covid.

“The route is a lifeline for the community and a new ferry helps secure it for years to come and will give a much needed boost to island confidence.”

Highlands and Islands Tory MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston meanwhile said the news will be a “great relief” to the community.

“If it had been left to the Scottish Government in Edinburgh to deliver the new ferry, who knows how long islanders would have been left waiting,” he said.

Fair Isle is one of ten projects in Scotland to receive funding from the UK Government’s Levelling Up Fund, which aims to spread opportunity across the country.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “Through greater investment in local areas, we can grow the economy, create good jobs and spread opportunity everywhere.

“That’s why we are backing a number of projects with new transformational funding to level up local communities in Scotland.

“By reaching even more parts of the country than before, we will build a future of optimism and pride in people’s lives and the places they call home.”

Scottish secretary Alister Jack said: “This latest round of UK Government funding will see more than £177 million invested into 10 exciting projects which will breathe new life into communities across Scotland.

“Working with local partners we are boosting culture and leisure in Aberdeenshire, Galloway and Kilmarnock; improving connectivity in Shetland and Dundee; regenerating Greenock and Cumbernauld town centres; unlocking huge swathes of land for green development in East Lothian and Stirling; and helping communities in Fife connect with nature.

“We must and will continue to invest in initiatives that will make a difference to communities and help grow our economy.”

A total of £3.8 billion has been awarded through the Levelling Up scheme so far, with a third round in the offing.

Shetland Islands Council recently concluded a pre-planning consultation on the proposed infrastructure works which form part of the ferry replacement project.

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